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Great promise overtaken by prairie phantoms

HospitalRobsart's hospital

When the first wave of early 20th century settlers trudged to southwest Saskatchewan to tame the new frontier grasslands, they needed every bit of inspiration they could muster for strength and perseverance.

In 1910, the Canadian Pacific Railroad purchased a quarter section of land in the southwest corner of the province and named it Robsart - after the heroine in Sir Walter Scott's novel Kenilworth, Amy Robsart. The moniker must have helped as the new settlement soon boomed.

In 1913, Henry Abbott led the first pioneer settlers to the new prairie community and quickly built a general store and feed mill. Within two years, Robsart had a mayor, council, town hall, and more than 30 businesses, including a dentist, veterinary surgeon, and jeweller.

With the arrival of the railroad in 1914, Robert was a land of promise. In fact, postcards of the day hailed the pioneer community as, "The town with a bright future." Every week, locals observed, fresh businesses were optimistically opening their doors. There were new hotels, cafes, livery barns, grain elevators and a bank. There was even a photography store run by Uncle John Asplund. As well, churches and a school were built - and by 1917, the town boasted its own hospital. Within a decade of being found, Robsart had a population of 350 optimistic souls.

"I was born in the room right over there in 1917," points Archie Smiley to the now abandoned former hospital.

Smiley, mayor of Robsart from 1978 to 1991, left the town in 1998 to live in Maple Creek, almost 80 kilometres north. But he will always love his native village - every part of it, good and bad. "For example, there was a murder in 1910 over at Jack Dayley's shack during a poker game," recalls Smiley. "There was lots of drinking going on and Dayley was hit over the head with a carpentry steel square. The RCMP came from Maple Creek to haul out his body but they never figured out who did it. He was an outlaw fella and nobody really cared."

For decades after, locals, including a young Archie Smiley, insisted Jack Dayley's restless spirit haunted his old shack, three kilometres south of Robsart. As for phantoms, Smiley says he and a group of friends thought they encountered one while telling ghost stories to girls near the cemetery in 1943.